Taking another bite at the park conservancy

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Members of the new Washington Square Park Conservancy were set to appear before Community Board 2’s Parks Committee earlier this month to give an update on what they’ve been up to since the organization launched this past summer. Based on what was learned at the meeting, the committee was not going to pass a resolution per se, but rather give a sort of status report on the conservancy to C.B. 2’s full board.

However icy sidewalk conditions forced the postponement of that meeting. Now we’re told the conservancy will be back on the agenda for the Parks Committee’s meeting on Wed., March 5.

Obviously, it’s time to clear the air on a lot of issues surrounding the conservancy. This is a group of well-meaning individuals who want to beautify the park and make sure it is well maintained by raising private funds. Yes, parks always need more money.

However, questions still linger about how C.B. 2 seems to have rushed to judgment on the conservancy, giving the group its stamp of approval before the new organization’s mission, budget and operating structure were fully clear.

Things came to a head a few months ago  when so-called “Hot dog gate” boiled over, after blogger Cathryn Swan uncovered that the conservancy members had pushed Sarah Neilson, their groupʼs executive director as well as the parkʼs administrator, to follow through on their desire to move the park’s hot dog vendors away from the “arch view corridor.” The dirty-dog slingers were reportedly deemed “unsightly” by some locals, the conservancy said.

On top of that, it turned out the Parks Department had not renewed the hot dog carts’ contracts to operate in the park, meaning they would be booted out at the end of 2013. However, the conservancy maintained it had nothing to do with the park’s “hot dog purge.” After a flurry of negative media coverage, in a 180, Parks recently said the hot dog carts will return to the park this spring.

The key point is that the conservancy has not signed a contract with Parks to manage the park. That was a provision of C.B. 2’s approval of the new group. Yet, Neilson’s dual role does blur the boundaries. Furthermore, Swan uncovered an e-mail — from several months before C.B. 2’s vote — in which a founding conservancy member, the group’s treasurer, wrote that she was eager for the new group to sign an agreement with Parks. The conservancy’s chairperson subsequently told The Villager this message was just “a joke.” Huh?

One gets the impression that decisions on important issues concerning the conservancy and the park’s governance were sort of being made “on the fly,” as it were, probably as scrutiny of the new conservancy and its relation to the park ratcheted up.

Furthermore, e-mails and other documents obtained by Swan through a FOIL, or Freedom of Information Law request, revealed that the new organization also planned to run film and theater festivals for “park patrons.” Does that mean for contributors to the conservancy? Neilson subsequently told The Villager that there are currently no longer any plans for that sort of programming, and that “park patrons” and “park users” are interchangeable terms. Yet this document was stamped “received” by the state attorney general just a month prior to the C.B. 2 vote.

In addition, the conservancy — at C.B. 2 meetings — said it did not yet have a budget to share. Yet a projected budget WAS among the documents submitted to the A.G.’s Office. Why was this information withheld? And why didn’t the board dig deeper to uncover it?

In short, these are the sort of questions C.B. 2 should have asked the conservancy and Parks officials before the board rushed to support the new group. Keen Berger and other board members had pushed to delay the vote for a month, or until the fall, so the board could access and process this information more thoroughly. There were too many unanswered questions, they felt. They were right.

There’s also a bit of a disconnect here between C.B. 2’s leadership and our local politicians. A half dozen of the latter — including Congressmember Jerrold Nadler — wrote a letter to Parks Commissioner Veronica White, expressing serious concern that the conservancy was calling the shots in the park on issues like the hot dogs, which they called “iconic fare, at an affordable price point.” There are healthier foods than hot dogs, admittedly. Yet, on the other hand, they are affordable and they are a New York City park staple. One local park activist said the hot dog struggle, to her, represents “class warfare.”

The board’s leadership, meanwhile, seems to prefer more upscale ice cream sandwiches — which Parks is bringing in to the park — and doesn’t seem to be too concerned, one way or the other, whether the square has hot dogs or not, saying this is “micromanaging.” Yet, most important — who really did make the decision to kick hot dogs out of the park? That is important because it represents making park policy — something the conservancy has pledged it would not do.

And — as Swan also uncovered — why was a leading C.B. 2 member coaching the conservancy members and its supporters on how to testify at the board’s June meeting? Was that, well, kosher?

The March 5 meeting is a chance for the board to take another bite, as it were, at “Hot dog gate” and other key questions regarding this new group and its role in the park, and to bring clarity. This is a chance to get right what the board failed to do the first time around. A fresh and hard look is unquestionably warranted.

Some want C.B. 2 to revisit the whole issue and vote anew on whether to support the conservancy. Apparently, that’s not going to happen. But there’s no question that this presents a chance now to really vet this new group — which is vitally important because it concerns the very governance of Washington Square Park. Not to overdo it on hot dog metaphors, but a thorough grilling is in order.